MOST WATERFOWLERS agree that mallards rule for duck hunting. There’s something about the big guys with the vibrant green heads, stately neckbands and bright yellow bills that turn the heads of duck hunters like no other duck.
It’s a legendary reign that is almost symbolic of royalty. Nothing captures the grandeur better than a wily group of drakes pitching through tree tops on a crisp winter morning — wings cupped and iridescent green heads gleaming. In short, mallards fuel the fire for most duck hunters.
Kevin Kraai of Canyon knows a thing or two about North America’s most abundant duck, and he’s a staunch proponent of the lore associated with hunting them.
“Duck hunters are opportunistic,” he said. “They hunt ducks largely in the order that they’re presented. However, if duck hunters have a goal, it is obviously the drake mallard.
“It’s a regional thing, but for the most part mallards are considered to be the king of ducks. They are the most sought-after species in most areas of the country from prairie Canada, the Dakotas, flooded bottomlands of the southeast and the grain fields of middle America, including the Texas Panhandle.”
Kraai, 45, is a veteran waterfowler. More than two decades ago, he turned his passion into a career as a waterfowl biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He’s been heading up the state’s waterfowl program for the last eight years.
With winter and the second split of another Texas duck season fast approaching, I recently caught up with Kraai and asked him to share some thoughts on the current status of North America’s favorite duck. He said mallard numbers are faring well despite habitat loss
Mallards continue their historic reign as the most abundant duck species, according to figures released last summer by the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service in its “2019 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations: report. This annual report is based largely on aerial surveys conducted during May and early June by the USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service and a host of other partners.
The 2019 survey numbers include 10 species totaling about 38.9 million ducks. Mallard numbers totaled about 9.4 million—an increase of about two percent from 2018 and 19 percent above the long-term average dating back to 1955. The blue-winged teal is the second most abundant duck with an estimated population of 5.4 million, according to the survey.
Kraai says it’s a blessing that mallard populations are holding their own across a landscape where critical habitat is on a decline. It also illustrates their resilience and ability to adapt.
“Mallards are well above average and surprisingly doing very well,” Kraai told me.
“I say ‘surprisingly’ because we as humans have done a really good job of destroying their habitat, especially their breeding grounds. We’re seeing wetland drainage on the prairies and more grasslands being turned into cropland. We keep thinking these scenarios are ultimately going lead to a grave population impact, but so far it hasn’t happened. The birds just continue to flourish.”
The biologist says strong mallard counts are largely responsible for the liberal duck hunting seasons allowed under federal frameworks over the last two-plus decades.
“Mallard populations and habitat conditions are what drive our adaptive harvest management hunting packages,” Kraai said. “We’ve have had more than 20 consecutive years of liberal hunting seasons, and that’s purely driven off of mallard numbers. The fact they continue to do well is a testament to their ability to adapt and still be successful in less than desirable conditions.”
Although much of prairie Canada was dry this past year, areas farther south saw unprecedented rainfall that kept tractors out of the fields and stifled the planting of agricultural crops early in the year. This allowed mallards and other ducks to enjoy a banner spring nesting season across much of the eastern Dakotas. Kraai said the ducks also experienced excellent survival, because the wet conditions persisted into early summer.
“Canada was pretty dry, but the conditions in the Dakotas were as good as they could possibly be,” Kraai said. “The biologists up there called it epic. It’s really good for things that are important to Texas with respect to dabbling ducks such as mallards, pintails and blue-winged teal. That’s where a pretty good supply of our birds come from. We also get a lot mallards out of Alberta and the province of Saskatchewan.”
Kraai says the mallard is a dabbling, inland species that is largely absent along the Gulf Coast. The two areas of the state that typically attract the most greenheads are northeast Texas and the Texas Panhandle.
The Panhandle is always at its best during years with ample rainfall to fill playa lakes and plenty of waste grain like milo and corn to provide birds some groceries in the fields.
“Northeast Texas sees the highest harvest amounts by far,” Kraai said. “That’s largely because it has an abundance of preferred habitat. Mallards really like to associate with major watersheds. The Red, Sulphur, Trinity and Sabine rivers are the core for mallard populations Texas.”
The key ingredient to attracting birds to these areas is water—lots of it.
“Mallards like it when it rains,” he said. “Flooded bottomlands and pastures are exactly what mallards look for, and northeast Texas is where a lot of those events occur. Plus, there are literally thousands of small water bodies sprinkled throughout the region. Because that water is so spread out the birds can often times sit down and not be disturbed. Bowie, Cass, Red River, Hunt, Delta, and Hopkins are the counties where most of our mallards are typically shot.”
Another major factor that can influence where mallards settle is hunting pressure, or a lack of it.
“Mallards like to stay where they aren’t going to get shot at,” Kraai said. “We’re beginning to see real strong evidence of all kinds of waterfowl — ducks and geese — beginning to really respond to hunting pressure and human disturbance. They’re doing things they weren’t doing 10 years ago.
“They’re using areas they haven’t used before—adapting if you will. Hunter activity is a strong driver as to where ducks settle in a landscape and how long they stay there, even if they aren’t getting shot at. Just the bang of guns a half-mile away can be very alarming. The like a quiet landscape if they can find it.”
Unlike most ducks, whose southward movements are triggered largely by photoperiod, Kraai says mallards are big, tough stubborn birds that typically demand some additional encouragement before they migrate south for winter.
“Mallards are different,” Kraai said. “They have to be told to leave. They’ll be happy so long as they’ve got open water and food.”
Mallards are driven largely by cold fronts, but big rain events can have an impact, too, the biologist said.
“Big floods are important to Texas getting a bunch of ducks to come here,” Kraai said. “If you get a big flood in early November you’re liable see some mallards show up because of the new food source, even though it hasn’t gotten real cold up north.”
As a rule, however, it is usually after Thanksgiving and into December before Texas duck hunters start seeing greenheads push into the Lone Star State in large numbers.
“Those are usually the peak times,” Kraai said. “If you look at harvest data for northeast Texas, the hunting improves every month starting in November. November is always the slowest month, and it usually gets progressively better from there. January is when majority of the mallards get shot. It’s all weather driven.
“But there are exceptions to every rule,” Kraai added. “You could have a very warm winter in the Dakotas and things might not freeze up until after Thanksgiving. That can mean problems in Texas. I always prefer to see it turn cold up north in early- to mid-November to get our birds down. It’s possible they could even have some cold snaps in late October that push some birds down early.”
White Oak Creek WMA
Location: Bowie, Cass, Morris and Titus counties in northeast Texas.
Size: 25,777 acres
About: Mostly bottomland hardwoods at the confluence of the Sulphur River and White Oak Creek.
Richland Creek WMA
Location: Freestone and Navarro counties
Size: 13,700 acres
Note: Consists of two units, North and South. North Unit consists of about 2,000 acres of primo waterfowl habitat consisting of bottomland cells that are flooded annually through a partnership with the Tarrant Regional Water District. South Unit has about 1,000 acres that offer excellent bottomland hunting the Trinity River/Richland Creek flood plains and flooded sloughs adjacent it.
Size: 14,480 acres
Location: Delta and Hopkins counties
Wright Patman Reservoir
Size: 18,900 acres
Location: Bowie and Cass counties
Size: 19,305 acres
Location: Delta and Hopkins counties
Size: 74,686 acres
Location: On the Red River, Texas/Oklahoma border northwest of Sherman
Ducks Unlimited Canada – Feather Fact – Mallard Duck – The Canadian Tradition
—story by CHESTER MOORE